The 16th of March 2013, a day most Irish rugby fans have wiped from their memory as they finished their Six Nations championship in fifth place but exactly six years on and things couldn’t be any more different.
That poor finish was the final straw of Declan Kidney’s coaching reign of the national team. Things looked bleak, a loss to Italy was the lowest point of the tournament, change was needed, and that’s where Joe Schmidt came in.
Following a successful spell in charge of Leinster, during which he won two Heineken Cups, Schmidt decided to test the waters at international level.
There was a sense that something big could happen, but it’s a sense that Ireland felt after winning the 2009 Grand Slam, only to fall from grace and slump to fifth within four years.
When Schmidt took charge of his first Six Nations championship there was optimism but winning the tournament first time was above all expectations. The only loss that year was away to England in a 13-10 defeat.
A thumping Welsh win meant Ireland needed to defeat Scotland by 21 points or more, they won 40-10.
That left England needing a 27-point victory or more over the French to claim the title. A 55-35 cracker of a game handed Ireland back to back Six Nations.
However, the defeat they faced that year came away to this Saturday’s opponents Wales.
In 2016 Ireland finished in third, while in 2017 a second-placed finish included ending England’s 18-game unbeaten run, but again there was a loss to the Welsh in Cardiff.
Last year, Ireland stormed to a Grand Slam, crushing everything in front of them. Leading to a No 2 ranking in the World Rugby standings.
This year has been a different story for the Kiwi and his troops with an opening day demolishing at the hands of England followed by scrappy wins over Scotland and Italy.
On Sunday, Ireland produced one of their best performances of the Schmidt era as they dominated France, keeping them scoreless until the final three minutes.
That win has kept Ireland’s slim hopes of retaining their title alive, albeit needing a win over Wales and a favour from a depleted Scotland against a rampant England.
Another championship would look amazing on Schmidt’s CV, but he has done that before, what he hasn’t done is win a match against the Welsh on their home turf.
This will be his third and final attempt to claim victory in Cardiff. A feat that would complete his CV and he is well aware of it.
“Yeah, it would be nice to tick it off,” he said when asked about the possibility of a win over the men in red.
Under Schmidt Ireland have developed into one of the best, if not the best team in the world, he has kept them in touching distance of the Six Nations in each of his campaigns.
It’s remarkable to consider.
He has been the man at the wheel behind every new record for the Irish in recent years and will go down as possibly the greatest Irish coach ever and will have hopes for more records at the World Cup later this year.
However, as he prepares to say goodbye to the Six Nations, exactly six years on from Ireland’s fifth-place finish, it would be fitting for Schmidt to leave Cardiff with the full-house of wins and who knows maybe even a fourth championship title to conclude the fairy-tale.
Scotland’s summer Test schedule finalised
Scotland’s summer Test schedule has been finalised with the news that Scotland A will face England A at Leicester’s Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Sunday 27 June, before the full national team heads to Europe to face Romania on 10 July and Georgia on 17 July in Test matches.
The British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa headlines a busy July programme that will see 25 of the top 30 ranked unions in action with several hosting or being hosted for the first time since the pandemic began, including world champions South Africa, and Rugby World Cup 2019 hosts Japan.
In line with government guidance, stadiums will be operating at a reduced capacity. It is expected that 6,000 supporters will be welcomed at Welford Road, with the potential to increase these numbers if government guidelines allow in the coming weeks.
Ticket details for England A v Scotland A will be confirmed shortly.
Scotland’s schedule will be overseen by Interim Head Coach Mike Blair, who will take charge in Gregor Townsend’s stead given his involvement as Attack Coach for the British & Irish Lions’ tour to South Africa.
Kick-off times and broadcast arrangements are to be confirmed.
On the news of an A fixture, Scottish Rugby’s Director of High Performance, Jim Mallinder, said: “For me, the ability to play A team fixtures is a key area of player development and given the depth we are now able to draw on around the Scotland men’s national team, it will provide an important opportunity for those pushing for international selection.
“After seeing such a positive number of Scotland players called up for the British & Irish Lions the summer series of matches opens up our options even further for player selection.”
British & Irish Lions issue Tour Update
The Lions Board confirmed its preference to SA Rugby on Monday evening, prior to follow-up meetings earlier today (Tuesday).
“After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the Board’s intended position is for the Tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021,” said Jason Leonard, chairman of The British & Irish Lions.
“We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust COVID-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted Tour. SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan.”
Mark Alexander, president of the SA Rugby, said he would inform the Executive Council of the South African Rugby Union of the alignment.
“We appreciate the Lions’ faith and share their desire to see a safe and successful tour,” said Alexander.
“We have been in regular contact with our government to make that a reality against the backdrop of the pandemic and its predicted progression over the coming months.
“There are serious financial implications for SA Rugby, should the event take place without any supporters in attendance, and we cannot ignore that in our considerations. But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners.”
Alexander said the original tour schedule was subject to review because of those considerations. Should any changes be required they will be communicated as soon as possible.
Leonard added: “Every British and Irish player dreams of wearing the famous red jersey, and players from the southern hemisphere aspire to be part of a Lions series. We owe it to the current players vying for a place in both squads to ensure they can become part of Lions history.
“We are very much looking forward to taking on South Africa for what promises to be a highly-competitive Series against the reigning World Champions.”
Alexander thanked the Castle Lager Lions Series’ commercial partners as well as the British & Irish Lions and ticket holders for their patience during the extended period of uncertainty.
“As hosts and ‘owners’ of the Castle Lager Lions Series no one has been more affected or more challenged by the current circumstances than SA Rugby,” said Alexander. “However, with the support of our government and good planning we can navigate the pandemic to nonetheless create a most memorable event for players, fans and partners.”
It is not yet known whether international or cross-border travel for supporters will be possible into the country in July. Supporters who have purchased ticket-inclusive packages through Lions Rugby Travel will be notified directly via email with information on the options available.
The Lions remind supporters that all packages purchased through Lions Rugby Travel are protected by the Covid-19 guarantee*. Supporters who have booked packages with official sub agents should contact them directly. For the latest guidance on travelling to South Africa please visit the UK Foreign Office website: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/south-africa or the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs website: https://www.dfa.ie/travel/travel-advice/a-z-list-of-countries/south-africa/
At this time, it also remains unclear whether spectators will be permitted into stadia in July and August. SA Rugby and the Lions continue to work with relevant South African Government departments to ascertain the latest guidance on COVID-19 countermeasure planning for major sporting events and will communicate any updates as soon as it is possible to do so.
In the event that spectators are not permitted to gain access to the Test matches, Lions supporters who had successfully purchased Test match tickets via the Lions ticket ballot will be refunded.
The British & Irish Lions Test match against Japan at BT Murrayfield Stadium on Saturday 26 June 2021 for the Vodafone Lions 1888 Cup will continue as scheduled. However, a decision on crowd size will be made nearer the time of the event and in line with the latest UK Government guidance. For more information, including ticketing enquiries, please visit:
The British & Irish Lions have toured South Africa on 13 previous occasions, with the first Tour taking place in 1891. In that time, the Lions have won four Test series, lost eight with one drawn. Their overall record against the Springboks is played 46, won 17, lost 23 and drawn six.
Ireland make multiple changes for England
There are a number of changes to the team that started against Scotland last Sunday starting in the half-backs where Captain Johnny Sexton is joined in by Conor Murray.
Garry Ringrose is ruled out of the side through injury so Bundee Aki slots in at inside centre with Robbie Henshaw shifting to the No.13 jersey.
Jacob Stockdale returns to the team for the first time since the Autumn Nations Cup win over Scotland back in December and is named on the left wing with Keith Earls on and Hugo Keenan completing the back three.
In the front row Dave Kilcoyne starts at loosehead alongside Rob Herring at hooker and Tadhg Furlong at tighthead.
Tadhg Beirne moves into lock to partner Iain Henderson in the absence of the injured James Ryan.
Will Connors was ruled out yesterday with a knee injury in training so Josh van der Flier comes in at openside. CJ Stander moves to 6 for his final Ireland game in Aviva Stadium and Jack Conan is named at No.8.
Speaking this week about Stander, Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton commented,
“He’s done things for the right reason. His wife and daughter are back in South Africa at the moment. They’ve been there for a few months and they went back for the last lockdown as well.
“It takes its toll, doesn’t it? He’s just taken the decision based on family reasons and we respect him for that, but he’s a big loss to Munster and Irish Rugby.
“He’s been huge for both teams over the last five, six years. Very shocked, but we wish him well and we hope that his last game in green will be one to remember.”
The replacements are Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson Park, Billy Burns and Jordan Larmour.
The game is being televised by VIRGIN (ROI) and ITV (NI) and kicks off at 4.45pm on Saturday afternoon.
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Engalnd, 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, March 20, kick-off 4:45pm):
15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 10 caps
14. Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster) 92 caps
13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) 51 caps
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 30 caps
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster/Lurgan) 33 caps
10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 98 caps CAPTAIN
9. Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 88 caps
1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 42 caps
2. Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 20 caps
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf) 48 caps
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) 62 caps
5. Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne) 21 caps
6. CJ Stander (Munster/Shannon) 50 caps
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 30 caps
8. Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 19 caps
16. Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 10 caps
17. Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 108 caps
18. Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD) 36 caps
19. Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 2 caps
20. Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 74 caps
21. Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 9 caps
22. Billy Burns (Ulster) 6 caps
23. Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 28 caps
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